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Moscow Times
December 21, 2001
A Year of Hard Lessons for the Media
By Manana Aslamazian
Manana Aslamazian is general director of Internews-Russia, a non-profit organization which provides support to independent regional television broadcasters. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

The main events of 2001 in the Russian media have undoubtedly been the change of ownership at NTV, with Gazprom-Media taking control of the channel from Vladimir Gusinsky, and the ongoing legal problems surrounding the Boris Berezovsky-controlled TV6, which is currently undergoing bankruptcy proceedings.

What conclusions are to be drawn and what lessons to be learned from these events?

It is clear that state officials have become less tolerant toward so-called opposition media outlets and are adopting a more interventionist approach than was the case a few years ago. What's less clear, however, is the level of the state administration at which these interventionist impulses are conceived.

Media companies (in particular television companies), therefore, need to take all precautions -- insofar as is possible -- to ensure a maximally risk-free existence.

This means, first, not borrowing or accepting money with political or other strings attached, which could lead to an unhealthy state of dependence and the attendant negative consequences. The case of NTV and Media-MOST provides the most graphic illustration of the risks associated with getting involved in this game.

And second, media companies need to make sure that all their legal paperwork is in order so that they are not an easy target for attack on legal grounds.

In this regard, the case of TVK television in the Lipetsk region comes to mind. TVK genuinely had one of the strongest teams of journalists of any regional television channel, but as a result of legal sloppiness and mistakes made by the management, the Lipetsk regional administration was able to close the company down in August of this year. The result is that a team of talented journalists is out of work and Lipetsk has been deprived of a valuable source of news and analysis.

So, the main lesson to be drawn from the events of this year is that media companies have to do everything within their power to minimize their exposure and vulnerability to pressure and "attacks" from regional and federal authorities.

This should be taken on board by both national and regional television companies, but especially by the latter. In contrast to NTV, most regional companies cannot mobilize high-profile defenders to lobby on their behalf in the case of aggression from the authorities. Nor do many regional channels inspire sufficient loyalty in their viewing public to be able to get people out onto the streets to demonstrate in their defense (as was the case with NTV).

However, not even regional governors would dare to openly close down a television station for providing critical or oppositional news coverage -- they will always look for some legal technicality or other pretext. So the task is to deprive the authorities, as far as is possible, of any such pretexts.

In terms of the news and current affairs content of national television, this year has seen the differences between channels diminishing. On the plus side, this points to greater professionalism and a more balanced approach to reporting. On the negative side, it is an indication that channels are exercising more self-censorship and worrying excessively about how the authorities will react.

The ownership change at NTV has not altered the media landscape as radically as many thought or feared it would. And, in fact, there have been some positive consequences -- in particular the exodus of journalists from NTV has resulted in the talents and skills of the NTV journalistic team being spread across RTR, TV6 and NTV, raising overall levels of journalistic professionalism.

A strongly positive trend this year has been the growth of advertising revenues on the back of general economic growth in Russia. Revenues have grown by an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent this year and are now approaching (or may even have exceeded) pre-crisis levels.

This is a particularly important development as advertising money comes without strings attached and increased revenues reduce the media industry's dependence on support from the state or from oligarchs.

It is not easy to assess the role of Press Minister Mikhail Lesin. For a government official he gets too emotional and involved in situations where he should remain firmly above the fray. He would do well to adopt a more neutral stance. Lesin is undoubtedly a clever and effective manager, as well as being a good operator.

However, he is pulled in different directions and this is evident in his behavior. On the one hand, as a former businessman he supports the freedom of the media and views things through the prism of the free market, while on the other hand the laws of political survival dictate that he behave loyally. For a number of reasons, I don't think he wants to strip TV6 of its broadcasting license, but that does not mean that he will stick his neck out in order to protect the channel to the bitter end.

Looking ahead to 2002, I expect that the state will continue to try to strengthen its control over the media and that there will be more pressure applied to "opposition" media outlets.

Assuming that the economy continues to grow, this should translate into increased advertising revenues for media companies. Furthermore, amendments to the profit tax that come into force on Jan. 1 should have a positive impact on the industry, as they permit companies to write off considerably more of their advertising expenses than has been the case up to now. Although, it seems that few media managers currently have a clear idea of how this will affect the financial position of their companies next year and thereafter.

To conclude, the main dangers faced by the media industry are the strengthening role of the state, economic instability (with the attendant loss of advertising revenues), and a failure to learn the lessons of this year and to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

In general, the media community would do well to pay more attention to its common interests, act with greater solidarity and to be fully cognizant of the potential dangers that lie ahead.

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